Economic Harmonies

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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George B. de Huszar, trans. and W. Hayden Boyers, ed.
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Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
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Introduction by Dean Russell
28 of 34




In this book there is a central, dominant thought; it pervades every page, it gives life and meaning to every line. It is the thought that begins the Christian's creed: I believe in God.


Indeed, if this work differs from the writings of some economists, the difference consists in the fact that they seem to say: "We have little faith in God, for we see that the natural laws lead to disaster, and yet we say: Laissez faire! because we have even less faith in ourselves, and we realize that all human efforts to halt the operation of these laws merely hasten the day of catastrophe."


If it differs from the works of the socialists, it is because they say: "We do indeed pretend to believe in God, but in reality we believe only in ourselves, since we want nothing to do with laissez faire, and each and every one of us offers his social plan as infinitely superior to that of Providence."


I say: Laissez faire; in other words: Respect freedom, human initiative.**82


Responsibility, solidarity, mysterious laws whose origins are unfathomable to us, aside from divine revelation, yet whose effects and unfailing influence on the progress of society it is given us to discern! For the very reason that man is a social being, these laws are interrelated, they overlap, they work together, even when on occasion they appear to be in conflict. Ideally they should be viewed as a whole, in their common action, were it not that science, with its feeble vision and uncertain step, is reduced to its scientific method, that unfortunate crutch which constitutes its strength even as it betrays its weakness.


Nosce te ipsum—"Know thyself"—is, as the oracle says, the beginning, the middle, and the end of the moral and political sciences.


We have stated elsewhere that, in regard to man or human society, harmony cannot mean perfection, but progress toward perfection. Now, progress toward perfection always implies some degree of imperfection in the future as well as in the past. If man could ever enter the promised land of absolute good, he would have no further need of his intelligence or of his senses; he would no longer be man.


Evil exists. It is inherent in human frailty; it evidences itself in the moral order as in the physical order, in the mass as in the individual, in the whole as in its parts. Because our eyes may hurt and our sight grow dim, will the physiologist ignore the harmonious mechanism of these wonderful organs? Will he deny the ingenious structure of the human body because that body is subject to pain, illness, and death, because Job once cried out in his despair: "I have said to corruption, Thou art my father, to the worm, Thou art my mother and my sister!"*121 In the same manner, because the social order will never bring mankind safely to port in the fantastic dreamland of absolute good, must the economist refuse to recognize the marvelous structure of the social order, which is so constituted as to diffuse more and more enlightenment, morality, and happiness among more and more people?


It is indeed strange that the natural scientist is allowed the right to admire Nature's handiwork, but that the political economist is not. For, after all, what difference is there, as regards the harmony of final causes, between the structure of the individual body and the structure of the collective body? As we know, the individual is born, grows, develops, and, as life unfolds, acquires bodily grace and strength, until the moment comes when he kindles the flame of new life. At this moment he radiates beauty; his every movement bespeaks joy and grace; he emanates kindliness, affection, good will, harmony. Then, for yet some time his intelligence grows and deepens, as if to guide over the tortuous road of life those whom he has summoned into existence. But soon his beauty dims, his grace disappears, his senses grow dull, his body fails, his memory becomes uncertain, his thoughts grow less clear, and, alas! even his affections—save for a few choice souls—seem filled with selfishness, lose the charm, the freshness, the sincerity and simple naturalness, the depth, the idealism, the disinterestedness, the poetic imagination, and the indefinable aura that belonged to his earlier years. And despite the ingenious precautions taken by Nature to retard the process of dissolution—precautions termed by physiologists the vis medicatrix, the sole and melancholy harmony with which this science must be content—the cycle of his attainments is now run in reverse; one after another along the downward road the acquisitions of the past are abandoned, the loss of one faculty is followed by the loss of another, until at last is reached the inevitable loss of all. Even the genius of complete optimism can find nothing consoling or harmonious in this slow and relentless disintegration, in the sight of this being, once so proud and fair, on his melancholy descent to the tomb. The tomb! But is not the tomb the door to another abode? Thus it is that, when science can go no further, religion links together anew,**83 even for the individual, in another and fairer land, the harmonious notes interrupted here below.**84


Despite this inevitable end, does the physiologist cease to consider the human body as the most perfect masterpiece to come from the hands of the Creator?


But if the body politic is subject to suffering, if indeed it may suffer unto death, yet society is not inevitably doomed. Whatever people may have said, we have no reason for anticipating that, after reaching its peak, it will of necessity decline. Even the crumbling of empires does not mean a retrogression for humanity, and the old molds of civilization are broken only to give way to a civilization more advanced. Dynasties may come to an end; forms of government may change; but the human race keeps on advancing nevertheless. The fall of a regime is like the falling of leaves in autumn. It fertilizes the soil, makes ready for the return of spring, and promises to future generations richer growth and more abundant harvests. I may go even further. Even from the purely national viewpoint, this theory of necessary decadence is as false as it is outmoded. It is impossible to see in a nation's mode of life any cause of inevitable decline. The analogy that has so often compared a nation to an individual and has attributed to both a childhood and an old age is nothing but a false metaphor. A community is continually being renewed. Provided its institutions are kept elastic and flexible, provided that, instead of colliding head on with new forces invented by the human mind, they are so organized as to permit of this expansion of intellectual energy and to adapt themselves to it, there is no discernible reason why a society should not flourish with the vigor of eternal youth. But, whatever we may think of the instability and collapse of empires, it remains true nonetheless that society, which in its entirety includes the whole of mankind, is built on more solid foundations. The more we study it, the more we remain convinced that it, too, has been provided, like the human body, with a self-curing power that saves it from its ills, and that, in addition, it has within itself a forward drive, which urges it on toward endless progress.


If then, the infirmities to which the individual is subject do not impair his physiological harmony, even less do collective ills impair the harmony of the social world.


But how can we reconcile the existence of evil with God's infinite goodness? It is not for me to explain what I do not understand. I shall merely observe that political economy is no more required to answer this question than is anatomy. Both these sciences, which are based entirely on objective observation, study man as he is, and do not require of God that He reveal to them His impenetrable secrets.


Thus, I repeat, in this book, harmony does not mean the idea of absolute perfection, but the idea of unlimited progress. It has pleased God to attach suffering to our nature, since He has willed that we move from weakness to strength, from ignorance to knowledge, from want to satisfaction, from effort to result, from acquisition to possession, from privation to wealth, from error to truth, from experience to foresight. I bow without murmur before this decree, for I cannot imagine how else our lives could have been ordered. If, then, by means of a mechanism as simple as it is ingenious, He has arranged that all men should be brought closer together on the way toward a constantly rising standard of living, if He thus guarantees them—through the very action of what we call evil—lasting and more widely distributed progress, then, not content with bowing before this generous and powerful hand, I bless it, I marvel at it, and I adore it.


We have seen schools of thought arise that have profited by the insolubility, humanly speaking, of this question to confuse all other questions, as if it were given to our finite minds to understand and reconcile the infinite. Placing over the portal of social science the sentence: God cannot will evil, they reach this series of conclusions: "There is evil in society; hence, society is not organized according to God's plan. Let us change and rechange and change still again the social order; let us keep on trying, let us go on experimenting, until we have found a form that removes every trace of suffering from this world. By this sign we shall know that the kingdom of God has come."


Nor is this all. These schools have been led to exclude freedom from their social planning on the same grounds as suffering, for freedom implies the possibility of error, and consequently the possibility of evil. "Allow us to organize you," they tell men; "do not take any active part yourselves; do not compare, judge, decide anything by yourselves or for yourselves; we hold laissez faire in abomination, but we demand that you let yourselves remain passive and that you let us act. If we lead you to perfect bliss, God's infinite bounty will be vindicated."


Contradiction, irrelevancy, overweening pride—it is hard to say which predominates in language of this kind.


One sect, among others, very unscientific, but very noisy, promises mankind unalloyed bliss. Only let the governing of mankind be given over to these gentlemen, and they confidently guarantee to rid it of every painful sensation.


But, if you refuse to place blind faith in their promises, they immediately raise that formidable and insoluble problem which has been the philosopher's despair since the beginning of the world, and they command you to reconcile the existence of evil with the infinite goodness of God. Do you hesitate? They accuse you of impiety.


Fourier exhausts all the combinations and permutations of this theme.


Either God was not able to give us a body of social law providing cohesion, justice, truth, and unity; in which case He is unjust in that He has created within us a want that we have no means of satisfying: or He did not wish to do so; in which case He is deliberately cruel, capriciously creating in us wants that it is impossible to satisfy: or He was able and He did not wish to do so; in which case He is the devil's rival, since He knows the right and prefers the reign of evil: or He wished to do so and was not able; in which case He is incapable of ruling us, since He knows and desires the good that He cannot do: or He neither was able nor wished to do so; in which case He is inferior to the devil, who is evil, but not stupid: or He was able and He did wish to do so; in which case the body of social law exists; He must have revealed it, etc.


And Fourier is the prophet. Let us surrender ourselves to him and his disciples, and Providence will be justified, our five senses will be transformed, and pain will disappear from the earth.


But why is it that these apostles of absolute good, these daring logicians who keep saying, "God being perfect, His handiwork must be perfect," and who accuse us of impiety because we resign ourselves to human imperfection—why is it, I ask, that they fail to realize that, even on the most favorable hypothesis, they would be just as irreverent as we? I devoutly hope that, under the reign of Messrs. Considérant, Hennequin,*122 etc., no one on the face of the earth should ever lose his mother or have a toothache —in which case he, too, could chant the litany: Either God was not able or did not wish, etc. I do indeed hope that evil returns to the infernal regions on the dawn of the great day of the socialist revelation; that one of their plans, the phalanstery, interest-free credit, anarchy, the triade,*123 the social workshop, etc., has the power to banish all future ills. Would it also have the power to take away all past suffering? Now, infinity has no limits; and if there has ever been a single unhappy person on the earth since the Creation, that is enough to render the problem of God's infinite goodness insoluble from their point of view.


Let us not, therefore, connect finite science with the mysteries of the infinite. Let us apply to the one observation and reason; let us leave the other to revelation and faith.


In all respects, from every point of view, man is imperfect. On this earth, at least, he encounters limitations in every direction and touches on the finite at every point. His strength, his intelligence, his affections, his life are not absolutes, but depend upon a material instrument subject to fatigue, change, and death.


Not only is this true, but our imperfection is so thoroughgoing that we cannot even conceive of perfection within ourselves or outside of ourselves. This idea is so completely alien to the human mind that every effort to grasp it must necessarily be futile. The more we attempt to lay hold of it, the more it eludes us and loses itself in inextricable contradictions. Show me a man who is perfect, and you will show me a man who cannot suffer, and who consequently has no wants, desires, sensations, sensibility, nerves, or muscles; to whom nothing is unknown, who consequently does not have the power of attention, judgment, reasoning, memory, imagination, or a brain. In a word, you will show me a being who does not exist.


Thus, from whatever point of view we consider man, we must see him as a being subject to pain. We must admit that evil comes into the providential plan as a kind of force; and, instead of seeking illusive means of eliminating it, it behooves us instead to study its role and mission.


When God saw fit to create a being composed of wants and of faculties with which to satisfy them, he at the same time decreed that that being should be subject to pain and suffering; for without pain and suffering we can experience no wants, and without wants we cannot understand either the uses or the reasons for any of our faculties. Everything that makes for our greatness has its roots in everything that makes for our frailty.


Driven by countless impulses, endowed with an intelligence that enlightens our efforts and appraises their results, we also have free will to make our choice.


Free will implies the possibility of error, and error in turn implies pain and suffering as its inevitable consequences. I defy anyone to tell me what it means to choose freely if not to run the risk of making a bad choice; and what it means to make a bad choice if not to expose ourselves to pain and suffering.


And this is undoubtedly why all the schools that will be satisfied with nothing less for mankind than absolute good are without exception materialistic and deterministic. They cannot accept free will. They realize that freedom of action comes from freedom to choose; that free choice presupposes the possibility of error; that the possibility of error means also the possibility of evil. Now, in an artificial social order of the kind invented by the planners, evil cannot appear. For this reason men must not be exposed to the possibility of error; and the surest way to do this is to deprive them of their freedom to act and choose, that is, of their free will. It has been truly said that socialism is despotism incarnate.


In the presence of these follies one wonders by what right the planner of such a social order dares to think, act, and choose, not only for himself, but for everybody else; for, after all, he too is part of mankind, and by that very fact is fallible. And the further he proposes to extend the sphere of his knowledge and will, the more fallible he shows himself to be.


No doubt he feels that this objection of mine is fundamentally mistaken, because it includes him with the rest of mankind. Since he has pointed out the flaws in the divine handiwork and has undertaken to redo it, he is not a man; he is God and more than God.


Socialism has two elements: the madness of inconsistency and the madness of rampant self-pride.


But when the existence of free will, which is the starting point of my entire study, is denied, should I not take the time to prove that it does exist? I shall do nothing of the kind. Everyone knows in his heart that it does, and that is sufficient. I feel that it exists, not vaguely, but with an inner certainty a hundred times stronger than any demonstration by Aristotle or Euclid could make it. I feel it in the joy of my conscience when I have made a choice that does me credit, and in my remorse when I have made a choice that degrades me. Furthermore, I observe that all men affirm the existence of free will by their conduct, even though a few deny it in their writings. All men compare motives, deliberate, decide, retract, try to foresee the future; all offer advice, grow angry at injustice, applaud acts of unselfishness. Therefore, all recognize in themselves and in others the presence of free will, without which choice, counsel, foresight, morality, and virtue are all impossible. Let us avoid trying to demonstrate what general practice recognizes as true. Absolute fatalists or determinists are no more to be found in the world today, even in Constantinople, than there were once absolute skeptics, even in Alexandria.*124 Those who profess to be may well be foolish enough to try to convince others, but they are not adroit enough to convince even themselves. They prove with highly subtle arguments that they have no free will; but since they act as if they did have, let us not argue with them.


We find ourselves, then, surrounded by Nature, living with our fellow men; driven by impulses, wants, appetites, desires; provided with various faculties that enable us to work either with things or with men; moved to action by our free will; endowed with an intelligence that is perfectible, and therefore not perfect, and, if capable of enlightening us, capable also of leading us astray regarding the consequences of our acts.


Every human action—setting in motion a series of good or bad consequences that fall in part on the doer of the act and in part on his family, his neighbors, his fellow citizens and sometimes on all mankind—sets to vibrating, so to speak, two chords that give forth utterances of oracular importance for us: responsibility and solidarity.


Responsibility, as it relates to the person performing an act, is the natural connection between the act and its consequences. It is a complete system of inevitable rewards and penalties that was invented by no man, that acts with the uniformity of all the great natural laws, and that therefore we may consider to be divinely instituted. Its purpose is evidently to limit the number of our harmful actions and to increase the number of our useful actions.


This device, which is at once corrective and progressive, rewarding and punitive, is so simple, so near us, so closely identified with our whole being, so constantly at work, that not only must we admit its existence, but we must recognize that, like evil, it is one of the phenomena without which our whole life would be meaningless.


Genesis relates how, when the first man had been driven from the earthly paradise because he had learned to distinguish right from wrong—to know good and evil—God pronounced this sentence upon him: In sorrow shalt thou eat of it [the fruit of the earth] all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee ..... In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken; for dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.*125


Here, then, we have good and evil—or human nature. Here we have acts and habits producing good or bad consequences—or human nature. Here are toil, sweat, thorns, tribulation, and death—or human nature.


Human nature, I say: for to choose, to err, to suffer, to correct one's errors—in a word, all the elements that make up the idea of responsibility—are so much a part of our sentient, intelligent, and free nature, they are so much one with this nature, that I defy the most fertile imagination to conceive of any other kind of existence for man.


That man once lived in an Eden, in paradiso voluptatis,*126 not knowing good and evil, scientiam boni et mali,*127 is something that we may well believe, but we cannot understand it, so completely has our nature been transformed.


It is impossible for us to separate the idea of life from the idea of sensation, of sensation from pleasure and pain, of pleasure and pain from reward and punishment, of intelligence from free will and choice, and all of these ideas from the idea of responsibility; for it is the sum total of all of these ideas that gives us the concept of existence, so that, when we think of God, though our reason tells us that He cannot experience pain, our reason remains confused, so inseparable for us are the ideas of existence and sensation.


And that is doubtless why faith is the necessary complement of our lot. It is the only possible link between the creature and the Creator, who is, and will always be, for our reason, God the unknowable, Deus absconditus.


In order to know how intimately responsibility affects us and how ubiquitous its influence on us is, we need only observe the simplest facts.


Fire burns us; a blow on the body causes a bruise. If we were devoid of sensation, or if our senses were not painfully affected by exposure to fire or rough bodily contact, we should be in danger of death every instant of our lives.


From earliest childhood to extreme old age, life is a long apprenticeship. We learn to walk by repeated falls; we learn by hard and repeated experiences to avoid heat, cold, hunger, thirst, excesses. We complain that experience is a hard teacher; but if it were not, we should never learn anything.


The same is true of the moral order. The awful consequences of cruelty, injustice, terror, violence, fraud, and idleness, are what teach us to be kind, just, brave, temperate, honest, and industrious. Experience takes a long time; it will, indeed, always be at work but it is effective.


Since such is man's nature, it is impossible not to recognize in responsibility the mainspring of social progress. It is the crucible of experience. Those who believe in the superiority of former times, like those who despair of the future, fall into the most obvious inconsistency. Without realizing it, they commend error and censure enlightenment. It is as if they said, "The more I learn, the less I know; the more clearly I see what can hurt me, the more I will expose myself to it." If mankind had been imbued with such an idea, it would long since have ceased to exist.


Man's starting point is ignorance and inexperience; the farther back we go through the ages, the more we find him lacking in the knowledge of how to direct his choice, for such knowledge is acquired in only one of two ways: reflection or experience.


Now, it so happens that every human act includes, not one consequence, but a series of consequences. Sometimes the first is good, and the others are bad; sometimes the first is bad, and the others are good. From a given human decision may come combinations of good and evil in varying proportions. Let us call vicious those acts that produce more evil than good, and virtuous those acts that produce more good than evil.


When one of our acts produces a first result that is pleasurable, followed by a number of others that are harmful, so that the sum of the bad is greater than the good, this act tends to be done less frequently and to disappear as we acquire more foresight.


Men naturally perceive immediate consequences more quickly than remote consequences. Hence, it follows that what we call vicious acts are more common in times of ignorance. Now, the repetition of the same acts develops habits. The centuries of ignorance are therefore marked by the reign of bad habits.


Consequently, these are also the times of the reign of bad laws, for repeated acts and general habits determine the customs on which laws are modeled, and of which they are, so to speak, the official expression.


How is this ignorance brought to an end? How do men come to know the second, the third, and ultimately the final consequences of their acts and habits?


Their first means is to use the faculty of discerning and reasoning given them by Providence.


But there is a surer, more effective way, which is through experience. When the act is performed, the consequences necessarily follow. It is known that the first consequence will be good; it was precisely to obtain this result that the act was performed. But the second entails suffering, the third greater suffering, and so on.


Then people's eyes are opened, and the light dawns. The act is not repeated; the benefit of the first consequence is forgone through dread of the greater harm brought about by the others. If the act has become a habit, and one does not have the strength to give it up, at least one yields to it only with hesitation and repugnance, after an inner struggle. It is not recommended; it is censured; one's children are advised against it. Certainly this is the road to progress.


If, on the contrary, we leave a useful act undone—because its first result, the only one known, is painful, and the eventual, favorable results are unknown—we then experience the effects of our sins of omission. For example, a savage has eaten his fill. He does not foresee that he will be hungry tomorrow. Why should he work today? As far as the present is concerned, work represents pain; it requires no foresight to realize that. Hence, he remains idle. But the day flits by, another follows, and with it comes hunger. Under this spur he must go to work. This is a lesson that, often repeated, cannot fail to develop the virtue of foresight. Little by little idleness is seen for what it is. It is deplored; the young are admonished against it. Industriousness is backed by the authority of public opinion.


But for experience to become a real teacher and to fulfill its mission in the world, developing foresight, revealing the true nature of cause and effect, encouraging good habits and curbing bad ones—in a word, for it to become a fit instrument of progress and moral improvement—the law of responsibility must function. The results of bad actions must be brought home, and, let us admit it frankly, evil must, for the moment, exact its severe penalty.


Of course, it would be better if evil did not exist at all, and that would perhaps be the case if man were made according to a different plan. But, given man as he is, with his wants, his desires, his sensations, his free will, his power to choose and to err, his faculty of putting into operation a cause that necessarily entails effects that cannot be eliminated as long as the cause exists; the only way to eliminate the cause is to enlighten his free will, correct his choice, suppress the vicious act or habit; and these things can be done only by virtue of the law of responsibility.


We can therefore declare that, man being what he is, evil is not only necessary but useful. It has a mission; it enters into the universal harmony. It has the mission of destroying its own cause, of being self-limiting, of helping to achieve the good, of stimulating progress.


Let us illustrate this point with a few examples taken from our particular subject, which is political economy.

Thrift, Extravagance


Three sanctions enforce the law of responsibility:

    1. Natural sanctions, which I have just described, the punishments or rewards that inevitably stem from our acts or habits.

    2. Religious sanctions, which comprise the punishments and rewards that in the next world will be meted out to our acts and habits, whether vicious or virtuous.

    3. Legal sanctions, the punishments and rewards prepared in advance by society.


Of these three kinds of sanctions, I admit that it is the first that seems to me to be fundamental. In saying this, I cannot avoid coming into conflict with opinions that I respect; but I beg the Christians to allow me to present my views.


It will probably be a subject of eternal debate between the philosophically minded and the religiously minded to determine whether an act is vicious because supernatural revelation has declared it to be so regardless of its consequences, or whether revelation has declared it to be vicious because it brings about bad consequences.


I believe that Christianity can take its stand in favor of this second opinion. Christianity itself declares that it came, not to destroy the natural law, but to fulfill it.*128 It can hardly be admitted that God, who is the supreme principle of order, made an arbitrary classification of human acts and promised that some should be punished and others rewarded without any reference to their effects, that is, whether discordant or in tune with the universal harmony.


When He said: "Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal," surely it was His intention to forbid certain acts because they are harmful to man and society, which are His handiwork.


A regard for consequences is so powerful an influence on man that, if he belonged to a religion that forbade acts proved useful by universal experience or that sanctioned acts of an obviously harmful nature, I believe that eventually this religion would be unable to maintain itself and would fall before the advance of progress. Men would not for long attribute to God the deliberate design of encouraging evil and forbidding the good.


The question which I touch upon here does not, perhaps, have any great importance as far as Christianity is concerned, since it is a religion that commands what is inherently good and forbids only what is bad.


But what I am now considering is whether, in principle, religious sanctions merely serve to reinforce natural sanctions, or whether natural sanctions are of no importance compared to religious sanctions and must give way before them when the two come into conflict.


Now, unless I am mistaken, the tendency of the ministers of religion is to concern themselves very little with natural sanctions. They have an unanswerable reason for this: "God has commanded this; God has forbidden that." There is no room left for reasoning, for God is infallible and omnipotent. Even though the act should bring about the destruction of the world, you must march blindly ahead, just as you would if God spoke directly to you and showed you heaven and hell.


It can happen, even in the true religion, that innocent acts are forbidden by the citation of divine authority. For example, to charge interest on money has been declared a sin. If mankind had obeyed this prohibition, the human race would long since have disappeared from the face of the earth. For, without interest, no capital is possible; without capital, there can be no co-operation between past labor and present labor; without this co-operation, there can be no society; and without society, man cannot exist.


On the other hand, if we look closely at the question of interest, we may rest assured not only that it is useful in its general effects, but also that there is nothing in it that is contrary either to charity or to truth—any more than in a priest's or a pastor's stipend, and certainly less so than in certain of their perquisites.


Therefore, all the power and authority of the Church has not for a moment been able, in this matter, to disregard the nature of things. At the very most, the Church has barely been able, in a number of extremely insignificant cases, to disguise one, and that the least common, of the forms in which interest is charged.


The same thing is true of moral precepts. When the Gospel says: "But whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,"*129 it gives us a precept that, if taken literally, would destroy the right to legitimate self-defense for the individual, and consequently for society. Now, without this right, the existence of the human race is impossible.


And therefore what has happened? For the last eighteen hundred years this admonition has been given merely lip service.


But, what is more serious, there are false religions in the world. These necessarily include precepts and prohibitions that are contradictory to the natural sanctions that authorize certain acts. Now, of all the means that have been given us to distinguish, in so important a matter, between what is true and what is false, what comes from God and what from imposture, nothing is more certain or more decisive than an examination of the consequences, good or bad, that a given doctrine may have for the progress of humanity: Ye shall know them by their fruits.

Legal Sanctions


Since Nature has prepared a whole system of punishments and rewards in the form of the effects that flow from every action and every habit, what must be done by human law? Only three courses are open: allow the law of responsibility to act alone, actively support it, or contravene it.


It appears to me beyond doubt that, when a legal sanction is applied, it must be only for the sake of giving greater power, regularity, certainty, and efficacy to natural sanctions. These two forces must work together, not in conflict with each other.


For example, if fraud is initially profitable to the person practicing it, in the long run it is more often disastrous for him; for it is harmful to his credit, his reputation, his honor. It creates mistrust and suspicion around him. Besides, it is always harmful to its victim. And finally, it alarms society and forces it to expend a part of its energies on onerous precautions. Thus, the combined evils resulting from fraud are far greater than its advantages. This is what we mean by the law of responsibility, which acts continually as a deterrent and a preventative. We can well understand, however, why the community does not leave the problem entirely to the slow, albeit relentless, action of responsibility, and sees fit to add a legal sanction to the natural sanction. In this case we can say that the legal sanction is merely the natural sanction regularized and formalized. It makes the punishment more immediate and certain; it gives greater publicity and significance to the facts; it surrounds the accused with certain safeguards, gives him the opportunity to clear himself, if he can, protects him against errors of public opinion and, by substituting the due penalty of the law, quiets the impulse to take personal vengeance. Finally, and this is perhaps the essential point, it does not nullify the lessons taught by experience.


Thus, we cannot say that legal sanctions are wrong in principle when they are in line with natural sanctions and work to accomplish the same ends.


It does not follow, however, that legal sanctions must in every case be substituted for natural sanctions, or that human laws may be justified by the mere fact that their action is in accord with that of the law of responsibility.


The artificial meting out of rewards and punishments entails for the community a number of inconveniences that must be taken into account. The machinery for applying legal sanctions is created by men, is run by men, and is costly in time and effort.


Before forbidding an act or a practice by legal authority, we must always ask this question: Does the extra benefit obtained by the addition of legal sanctions to natural sanctions compensate for the disadvantages necessarily involved in the apparatus of repression?


Or, in other words, are the disadvantages of artificial repressive measures greater or less than the dangers involved in impunity?


In the case of theft, murder, and most crimes and felonies, there is no doubt as to the answer. Therefore, all nations use the force of the law to suppress them.


But in the case of a practice on which it is difficult to pass an objective judgment, which may stem from moral causes requiring a very delicate weighing of values, a different question arises; and it may very well happen that, although this practice is everywhere held to be harmful and vicious, human law should remain neutral and abdicate its authority in favor of the law of natural responsibility.


Let us say first of all that the law must take this stand whenever it is dealing with a debatable act or practice, when one part of the population approves of something of which the other part disapproves. You contend that I am wrong to practice Catholicism; and I contend that you are wrong to practice Lutheranism. Let us leave it to God to judge. Why should I strike at you, or why should you strike at me? If it is not good that one of us should strike at the other, how can it be good that we should delegate to a third party, who controls the public police force, the authority to strike at one of us in order to please the other?


You contend that I am wrong to teach my son science and philosophy; I believe that you are wrong to teach yours Greek and Latin. Let us both follow the dictates of our conscience. Let us allow the law of responsibility to operate for our families. It will punish the one who is wrong. Let us not call in human law; it could well punish the one who is not wrong.


You say that I would do better to follow a given career, to work in a given way, to use a steel plow instead of a wooden one, to sow sparsely rather than thickly, to buy from the East rather than from the West. I maintain the contrary. I have made my calculations; after all, I am more vitally concerned than you in not making a mistake in matters that will decide my own well-being, the happiness of my family, matters that can concern you only as they touch your vanity or your systems. Advise me, but do not force your opinion on me. I shall decide at my peril and risk; that is enough, and for the law to interfere would be tyranny.


We see, then, that in almost all of the important actions of life we must respect men's free will, defer to their own good judgment, to that inner light that God has given them to use, and beyond this to let the law of responsibility take its course.


The interference of statute law in such cases, over and beyond the great disadvantage of being as likely to be wrong as to be right, would also involve the even greater risk of paralyzing our very intelligence, that guiding light which is our glory and the guarantee of all our progress.


But even when an act, a habit, or a practice is recognized by common judgment to be bad, vicious, immoral; when no doubt exists; when those who succumb to it are the first to deplore it; even then the interference of human law is not justified. We still have to know, as I have just said, whether, by adding to the bad effects of the vice the bad effects inherent in all legal machinery, we are not in the long run producing a sum of evils in excess of the good that the legal sanction can add to the natural sanction.


We might well consider at this point the good and bad results that can be obtained by the application of legal sanctions for the suppression of idleness, prodigality, avarice, selfishness, cupidity, ambition.


Let us take idleness as an example.


It is a very natural inclination of mankind, and there are many who echo the Italians in hailing the dolce far niente*130 and Rousseau's declaration: I am delightfully lazy. Undoubtedly, then, idleness has its satisfactions, for otherwise there would be no idle men in the world.


Nevertheless, so many evils come from idleness that it is proverbially known as the mother of all vices.


Its evils far outnumber its advantages; and surely the law of responsibility has operated with some effectiveness in this matter, either as a teacher or as a spur to action, since it is by labor that the world has reached the state of civilization in which we find it today.


Now, what could a legal sanction add to the providential sanction either as a teacher or as a spur to action? Suppose there is a law punishing idleness. Just how much would this add to the existing activity of the nation?


If it could be determined, we should know exactly how useful such a law would be. I admit that I have no idea. But we must ask ourselves how dearly we would have to pay for such benefits; and even a little reflection will incline us to the belief that the inevitable disadvantages arising from legal suppression would greatly outweigh its problematical advantages.


In the first place, France has thirty-six million inhabitants. All of them would have to be strictly supervised, to be followed into the fields, their workshops, their homes. I leave it to the reader to calculate how many extra civil servants, how much of an increase in taxes, etc., this would require.


Secondly, those who are already industrious—and, thank Heaven, their number is great—would be subjected no less than the idle to this unbearable inquisition. It is terribly cumbersome and ill-advised to subject a hundred innocent people to degrading measures for the sake of punishing one guilty person whom Nature, left to herself, will properly punish anyway.


And then, where does idleness begin? In every case brought to trial, a most minute and exacting investigation would have to be conducted. Was the accused really idle, or was he taking necessary rest? Was he sick, meditating, praying, etc.? How can all these delicate matters be weighed? Had he worked especially hard in the morning in order to enjoy a little leisure during the rest of the day? Think of all the witnesses, experts, judges, policemen that would be needed, and of all the opposition, the secret accusations, and the hatreds that would be incited!


Then there is the question of the miscarriage of justice. How many idlers would escape, and, on the other hand, how many industrious persons would be put into prison to pay for one day's idleness by a whole month of idleness!


In view of these and many other consequences, people said to themselves: Let us allow the natural law of responsibility to operate without interference. And they were right.


The socialists, who are never deterred from their goal by fear of acting despotically—for they have proclaimed the supremacy of the end over the means—have branded responsibility as individualism and have attempted to eliminate it or to absorb it within the scope of solidarity extended beyond its natural limits.


The results of this perversion of the two great motive forces of human perfectibility are disastrous. Man is left without dignity, without freedom. For, as soon as the person who acts is no longer personally responsible for the good or bad consequences of his act, his right to act as an individual no longer exists. If everything the individual does sets in motion a series of consequences involving society as a whole, the initiative for each act can no longer be left to the individual; it belongs to society. Only the community has the right to decide everything, to regulate everything: education, food, wages, amusements, travel, love, family, etc., etc. Now, society finds its expression in the law, and the law is simply the will of the lawgiver. Hence, we have a flock and a shepherd; even less than that, we have a workman and his inert raw material. We see, therefore, what the suppression of responsibility and individualism leads to.


In order to conceal this frightful objective from the common people, the socialists had to pander to their most selfish passions even while they ranted against the principle of selfishness. They said to these poor people: "Do not ask yourselves whether the hardships that you suffer are to be ascribed to the action of the law of responsibility. There are people in the world who are happy and prosperous, and in virtue of the law of solidarity they owe you a share of their prosperity." And in order to reach this stultifying level of factitious, legalized, official, forced, and unnatural solidarity, they raised plunder to the status of an economic system, distorted every notion of justice, and elevated that individualistic impulse, which they supposedly outlawed, to the highest point of power and perversity. Thus, everything in their system holds together: denial of the harmonies that spring from liberty, as its principle; despotism and slavery, as its result; immorality, as its means.


Every attempt to divert responsibility from its natural course is an attack upon justice, freedom, order, civilization, or progress.


The good or bad consequences of a given act or habit follow it necessarily. If it were only possible to eliminate these consequences, there would undoubtedly be some advantage in suspending the natural law of responsibility. But the only result to be gained by a written law would be to make the good consequences of a bad act fall upon the doer, while its bad consequences would fall upon a third party or upon the community—which is certainly the characteristic feature of injustice.


Thus, modern societies are constituted on the principle that the father of a family is obliged to rear and care for the children he has brought into the world. And it is this principle that has kept and distributed the population within proper limits, every person being aware of his own responsibility. All men are not endowed with the same degree of foresight, and,**86 in the large cities, immorality is added to improvidence. Now, there are public funds and administrative agencies for taking care of children abandoned by their parents; no investigations are made of these shameful desertions, and a steadily growing wave of foundlings floods our poorer farm areas.


Here, then, we have a peasant who has married late in life, in order to avoid being overburdened with children, forced to care for other people's offspring. He will not advise his son to exercise foresight. And another who has always practiced continence, we find is taxed to pay for the support of bastards. From the religious point of view, his conscience is clear, but humanly speaking, he must say to himself that he is a fool.....


We do not propose here to go into the grave question of public charity. We merely wish to make the essential observation that the more the state becomes centralized, and the more it turns natural responsibility into artificial solidarity, the more it deprives the consequences of an act—which will then affect parties not connected with it—of their providential character as agents of justice and retribution, and as preventive checks.


When the government cannot avoid assuming responsibility for a service that should remain in the realm of private activity, it must at least keep the burden of responsibility as much as possible upon the shoulders of the one to whom it naturally belongs. Thus, in the case of foundlings, the principle being that the father and the mother must raise the child, the law must exhaust every means to see that this is done. If the parents cannot be found, it must be the local community's responsibility; if not the local community, it must fall to the department. Do you wish to multiply to infinity the number of foundlings? Just declare that the state must take charge of them. It would be even worse if France were to provide for Chinese children, or vice versa.....


It is indeed a singular thing that people wish to pass laws to nullify the disagreeable consequences that the law of responsibility entails. Will they never realize that they do not eliminate these consequencs, but merely pass them along to other people? The result is one injustice the more and one moral lesson the less.....


How can the world be expected to improve except as everyone performs his duty? And will not everyone the better perform his duty if he will have to suffer should he neglect it? If social action is to be concerned with the operation of the law of responsibility, it should be to reinforce, not to divert, to concentrate, not to diffuse haphazardly, the consequences that this law exacts.


It has been said that public opinion is sovereign. Certainly if it is to rule well, it must be enlightened; and the better each and every man who contributes to creating it understands the relation of cause and effect, the more enlightened public opinion will be. Now, nothing makes us better appreciate this cause-and-effect relationship than experience, and experience, as we well know, is altogether a personal matter; it is the fruit of responsibility.


There is, then, in the operation of this law, a most valuable system of education with which it is very imprudent to tamper.


If by ill-advised measures you free men from the responsibility of their acts, they could still be taught by theory—but no longer by experience. And I am not certain that instruction that is not reinforced and backed by experience is not more dangerous than ignorance itself.....


The sense of responsibility is a faculty that can be highly developed.


It is one of the most estimable of moral phenomena. There is nothing that we more admire in a man, a class, or a nation than responsibility; it reveals a high moral standard and a keen sensitivity to the decrees of public opinion. But the sense of responsibility can be highly developed in one direction and be very lacking in another. In France among the upper classes a man would die of shame if he were caught cheating at cards or indulging in solitary drinking. These things are laughed at among the peasants. But to traffic in political rights, to use our vote for ignoble ends, to compromise with our own integrity, to cry out, by turns, "Long live the King!" "Long live the League!"*131 according to the expediency of the moment—these are things that in our present society carry no opprobrium.


Women have much to contribute in developing the sense of responsibility.


They are extremely receptive to it. It devolves upon them to foster among men this force for moral improvement; for it is their role to mete out effectively blame and praise..... Why do they not do so? Because they are not sufficiently aware of the connection between cause and effect in moral matters.....


Moral knowledge concerns all mankind, but women particularly, for they shape the moral tone of a nation.....

Notes for this chapter

[.... because I believe that a higher Power directs it, because, since God can intervene in the moral order only through the instrumentality of each man's self-interest and will, the resulting action of various interests and wills cannot lead to ultimate evil; for otherwise it would not be man or the human race alone that is on the road to error, but God Himself who, in virtue of His impotence or cruelty, would be leading His imperfect creature on to evil.

We therefore believe in liberty because we believe in the harmony of the universe, that is, in God. Proclaiming in the name of faith, formulating in the name of science, the divine laws, flexible and vital, of our dynamic moral order, we utterly reject the narrow, unwieldy, and static institutions that some men in their blindness would heedlessly introduce into this admirable mechanism. It would be absurd for an atheist to say: Laissez faire! Leave it to chance! But we, who are believers, have the right to cry: Laissez passer! Let God's order and justice prevail! Let human initiative, the marvelous and unfailing transmitter of all man's motive power, function freely! And freedom, thus understood, is no longer an anarchistic deification of individualism; what we worship, above and beyond man's activity, is God directing all.

We are well aware that man may err; indeed, his capacity for error is as great as the distance separating well-founded knowledge from truth still only vaguely, intuitively sensed. But since it is his nature to seek, it is his destiny to find. Truth, let us observe, has a harmonious relation, an inevitable affinity, not only with the form of man's understanding and the instincts of his heart, but also with all the physical and moral conditions of his life; so that even though it may elude his intellectual comprehension as absolute truth, or his intuition as morally just, or his aesthetic sense as beautiful, it will still win his ultimate acceptance by the practical and irrefutable argument that it is useful.

We know that free will can lead to evil. But evil, too, has its mission. God surely did not haphazardly cast it in our way to make us fall; he set it, as it were, on either side of the path that we were to follow, in order that man, striking against it, should by evil itself be brought back to the good.

[Job XII, 14. Bastiat's exact words for this passage are: "O tombe, vous êtes ma mère: Vers du Sépulcre, vous êtes mes frères et mes sœurs!" The actual words of the French Bible are closer to the English version given above. "J'ai crié à la fosse. Tu es mon frère, et aux vers: Vous êtes ma mère et ma sœur." These slight differences, as well as the fact that Bastiat attributes the words to "the psalmist" rather than to Job, suggest that he may have quoted from memory.—Translator.]
Religion (religare, to rebind), that which connects our present life with the life to come, the living with the dead, time with eternity, the finite with the infinite, man with God.
Could we not say that divine justice, which seems so incomprehensible when we consider the fate of individuals, becomes strikingly clear when we reflect on the destiny of nations? The life of every man is a drama whose action is begun on one stage and is completed on another; but such is not the case with the life of nations. That instructive tragedy begins and ends on earth. That is why history is a part of Holy Writ; it reveals the justice of Providence. (De Custines, La Russie.)
[Victor-Antoine Hennequin (1816-1854), disciple of Fourier, active political supporter of his ideas, and ally of Considérant.—Translator.]
[One of the divisions of Fourier's phalanges.—Translator.]
[Bastiat's reference here is obviously to the Constantinople of his day as a center of Mohammedanism, with its emphasis on fate (kismet), even as ancient Alexandria was a center of the Stoic philosophers.—Translator.]
[As would most Frenchmen of his time, Bastiat quotes this passage (Gen. 3: 17-19) from the Vulgate: sciens bonum et malum ..... In laboribus comedes ex terra cunctis diebus vitae tuae. Spinas et tribulos germinabit tibi. In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.—Translator.]
["In a paradise of delight."—Translator.]
["Knowledge of good and evil."—Translator.]
[Unfortunately the author did not live to deal with the interesting ramifications of this idea, which he had proposed to present here by means of concrete illustrations, although he did indicate what their general character was to be. The reader will be able to compensate in part for their loss by referring to chapter 16 of this book, and to chapters 7 and 11 of the pamphlet "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen" (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 1).—Editor.]
[Cf. Matt. 5: 17-48.—Translator.]
[Matt. 5:39.—Translator.]
["The sweet state of doing nothing."—Translator.]
[The end of this chapter is little more than a series of notes thrown together without transitions or development.—Editor.]


[The Holy League, organized in 1576 by the Duc de Guise, had as its secret objective the overthrow of King Henry III of France.—Translator.]

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

End of Notes

28 of 34

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